Dressed in Kendo armour, barefoot, hair in a ponytail, headgear under her arm, Kira exited the beaded curtain. Kira’s father parked himself on a bench and proceeded to pick his nose while Kira selected two shinais. Once her father finished examining something he had mined on the tip of his finger, he rolled it between his thumb and forefinger and flicked it on the floor. He then flung a contented smile in my direction.
“Never mind him,” said Kira handing me a shinai. “He’s baiting you, trying to clutter your mind after you achieved mindlessness and walked the Way.”
“Successful Bushido is Way of Great Learning. In all things where uncertainty lives, doubt and fear inhabit the mind. Once you have completely learned something, have clarified all impedance, nothing remains to clutter your thoughts. Fear becomes a servant that may be transformed. Now you may perform what you have learned without inhibition, but mindless. Empty.”
“More is less,” I said. “Why didn’t your dad explain this long ago?”
“It can’t be forced. Even once learned, you can’t even summon it. You can only focus, clear the mind and wait for it. Often it takes years of focussed meditation to achieve. More you keiko, quicker it arrives.”
“How does a student with only two years of training succeed at it?”
“Maybe you are truly mindless,” she said laughing lightly. “Some people have the ability to relinquish thoughts completely. They harmonize without awareness. Most describe a doorway. We refer to those people as mystics. They have spiritual ability to harmonize without formal training. It is called Freedom from Learning. Generally, much training is necessary to wake this latent skill. Monks spend whole lives in meditation to attain mindlessness, whereas it is common for children to experience moments of clarity.”
When I looked up, I caught a presence in Kira’s eyes. They were inky black and feminine. I shrugged away that thing we shared, uncertain what or how, or where it was born, but I felt convinced she knew. Complete acceptance of each other had forever stripped away pretence between us. Familiarity had always existed, as did a feeling of sharing kindred spirits. It was not similar outlooks, but it could be. It was not mutual respect, though plenty existed. It was a knowing I could not put a label on. It was too much of everything and nothing specific.
“Those few students who experience Freedom from Learning own differing degrees of knowing. They are born with a name that describes their true selves. Others may reach a certain point in training and earn a name, but they will never completely be that name. In this manner, intuition approaches consciousness.”
“It is the ultimate form of self-awareness and acceptance; first great step to attaining sustained harmony. The student will always be a student, but now they have a duty to spread knowledge by example. Many Westerners strive intuitively for self-awareness when they seek to find themselves. Many mistakenly believe their vocation, their physical or academic achievements, or their role as father, mother, sister, defines them. What people do, is not who they are. All identity is connected to the ego. And the ego is incapable of realizing spiritual truth without first trying to define it. The moment we define anything, we diminish it with limitations. Only by letting go, can we receive. Only by surrendering, can we attain.”
Kira emanated smoothness, strength and tranquillity. Bending down to pick her shinai up off the floor brought an image of a ballerina to mind. Kira was at peace and in harmony with the world. But I did not let that fool me. Kira’s harmony was a product of years of hard work. Her personality shone in balanced proportions. Nothing about her appeared forced. It often appeared as though everything came easily and naturally to her. Easy and natural because of her dedication to Zen Bushido and its edicts. We donned men (headgear), retreated nine paces from the other, turned and bowed. We circled each other.
“I was thinking of stepping it up. Jigeiko, freestyle. Torso touch. Let’s start with a few single bouts and see what happens.” When I nodded, she asked, “Are you wondering if you’ll earn a name?”
“Actually, I was wondering what yours was.” Crossing one foot over the other I kept my eyes locked on her elbows in high-guard. “I’m thinking you have Freedom from Learning.” As her eyebrows wrinkled inward, I declared with near certainty, “That’s why your father has you training me. He knows you can’t teach Freedom from Learning, but you may use instincts to trigger another’s latent ability.”
“You knew all along!” Playful annoyance crept into her voice. A rare and quirky smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. “You coached answers to confirm suspicions. You played me, Bruce.”
“No. I suspected. I was more confident tonight when you said I was instinctual. Will you tell me what a mystic is?”
“I will show you. Being less to become more is but one part of the lesson. What is the second?”
“‘Pretend incompetence when competent.’”
“Ah, Gai-jin embraces bushido wisdom; quotes Sun-Tzu. Not so uncivilized. The true challenge is to be humble when competent, to live without pride, to let go of worldly self and regret. Sun-Tzu wrote of strategy, but it has its basis in spiritual truth. When one learns to surrender desire, to relinquish all hold on the material world, they are ready to receive the universe, for all of us and everything is one and the same. We are all fashioned and formed from the same material. Now, let’s see you embrace humble shinai song.”
Her elbows began to unbend. Before her shinai thrummed with power through the air currents, I shifted to hasso-no-kamae and caught it on the side. Back to high-level stance. Twice more Kira issued the downward cut. Twice more I intercepted her strike. A quirky grin lighted her face with luminescence.
“Subterfuge is part of bushido. The only rule of engagement is that there aren’t any. Tell me, Blossom, what is your true self-name?”
“Kire!” she shouted and cut.
Repeatedly Kira lashed out. When a high stance failed to penetrate, she turned her concentration low, issuing dragon from water to strike up toward my hip. Her shinai deflected off mine and continued high, reversing at apogee to sing back downward.
My shoulder took a hit that would have hurt a lot worse if Kira’s shinai had not collided and bounced off mine first. I had nearly caught her strike solely using intuition. Kira stepped back releasing the dō-himo fastening her stomach armour. Though it was bulky and disrupted movement, we wore padding. Only a fool contemplated kendo without padding. In the beginning, I had mistakenly believed I could accept Kira’s strikes and attempted kendo training without armour. Each strike sent me to the floor. The pain was exquisite.
“There is an additional black and blue flower for your garden. Remove protection. Everything. Now.”
“One more for my collection,” I told her rubbing the area while she threw her dō to the side.
What’s going on? Not that my guy pride would speak up. Her father observed us with more interest, no longer mining treasure. His stoic Japanese expression hid emotions but could not disguise his eyes that intently measured and assessed our attitude and our movements. After hundreds of lessons, I still could not read his body language, but I had learned to anticipate his habits.
“Come, Bruce, assume high-level. Now, cut downward.” When I complied, her shinai waited. “My turn.” Kira swung from high level. I blocked and returned to high-stance. “Yes. Kire! Keep it flowing. Now into block. Cut. Yes. Look only to my eyes for harmony. Find your reflection. See yourself looking at yourself and then let go. No thinking. Kire!” she shouted and cut. “There is nothing else. Kire! Let our kihaku join. Kire! Let go of outside world. Block. Strike. Kire! We make rhythm.”
On we went.
Strike and block.
“Faster, Bruce. Pick it up.”
Block. Strike. Over and over.
Back and forth. Both of us focussed on the other’s eyes, thinking of only one strike and one block. The only clue of the other’s intent lay in the peripheral vision, and then even that faded, narrowed into the few small millimetres of inky blackness that I was locked into. Kira’s intention to cut was nowhere in those black depths, yet it was perfectly clear because we had forged a rhythm. As our rhythm deepened, we began to move as one. We became a mirror image of the other. She guided me to feel with other senses ― senses that the majority of us denied existed. Some part of me registered her father now stood. Cut and block. Our repetitive movement, simple and mindless, no different from cleaning the floor, continued. The dojo warmed with our exertion, with our concentration, with the intensity of our spirits. Beads of perspiration dotted Kira’s brow.
Her focus was complete. Not once had she looked away, yet each time her shinai awaited mine. She increased our tempo. Reflexes took over total control. Bamboo knocking speeded faster and faster. A single misstep, a fraction of a second late and the other person would suffer a full downward hit.
Frayed chocolate brown edges ringed Kira’s coal-black eyes. Her pupils slowly expanded. The pulse in her temple bulged and then laid flat before bulging with the next heartbeat. A single drop of perspiration meandered down her cheek, travelled a little left, pooling before continuing. It felt as though we slogged through a deep snowdrift. No matter how fast her strike came at me, I flowed into block. Total awareness of my surroundings arrived with a submarine’s three-hundred-sixty-degree sonar. The old guy stepped closer. A light in the front flickered. The air handling system kicked on. I recalled this feeling, remembered this sense. It was ancient. As a kid playing sports, I had experienced rare moments of harmony. Until now, my mind had forgotten the sensation, but my body had not.
“Ipponme, first long sword kata,” instructed Kira stepping back.
Not wishing to disrupt the tranquillity we had constructed by uttering ugly words, I simply obeyed. We came together from high and low. Shinais sang and clashed. Breaking off, I stepped out-and-in to issue shōmen, a strike to the top of her head. Kira’s shinai waited, but not as early as usual. Three more strikes and blocks passed before I entered kirioroshi and swung downward. Kira moved smoother than liquid silver and greasy fast. Delicately lethally beautiful, sister to a deadly poisonous flower. She flowed up to block with perfect uke-nagashi.
As she came forward, Kira revealed her true self. I know you, I thought suddenly. We’ve met. Of course, we have. Jōdan is the kamae of fire ― hi-no-kamae ― a stance that said, ‘Come and strike me wherever you like, if you dare.’ We shared loyalties. Our kihaku burned. Her feminine form was cherry fire, female in perfection, in strength and in purpose. If a person bottled tolerance, unpretentiousness and purity of heart, Kira would be its vessel.
Palpable heat emanated outward from her core in a scarlet wave. It embraced my fire spirit, showed me how to live in this moment and no other. When Kira’s female kihaku enveloped my male kihaku, solar flares rippled in her eyes. They acknowledged what I was only now beginning to recognize, that it was possible to invoke a spiritual essence without context, like entering a room empty of clues but knowing there had been a celebration full of happiness and laughter hours earlier. Using this type of vision, she viewed my true form, though I was still blind to it. Humility descended upon me, igniting an inner flame. Newly arrived but ancient.
Dam gates opened.
Strength, purpose and meaning were mine to tap into. Nothing could stand before our spirits. Back and forth we went. Twining and flowing as one. Our kata was slippery smooth, symmetrical, a double-time rhythm of metered music. We moved in synchronicity, flowing, striking and blocking each step of the way. Seen through our eyes we shifted slowly from one form to the next, but to any who watched, our shinais blurred the air too fast to easily track. In time, even Kira disappeared. There was only my movement, only my qi ― my life force. I was one, but many. I was legion. Everything was separate but interconnected. The galaxy; the universe. Every animal, every plant and every person. We were all parts of a larger whole.
Everything was one. Less is more.
Rising dragon from water, I blocked her shinai. When her shinai reached apogee, it flamed through its curved descent, burning and thrumming, issuing from eagle strikes prey. The air was alive with shinai songs. Without thought, as though by magic, my shinai waited. Effortless. It denied Blossom her favourite stinging strike at full speed. Rivers of qi energy flooded my system; I was Jōdan-no-kamae, the fire stance. Instead of enacting jōdan-no-kamae, I had embodied it. The transition was instantaneous to crossover, one foot behind the other, to okuri-ashi (giant slide-step) across the floor, flame walking power and grace, burning with focus and intent. Nothing could stand before our fire spirits, only coexistence was possible. Kira and I stood together. No one could exist in opposition between us. None could enter our sphere without paying a price.
Elbows nearly parallel, coming together as I unleashed. Vibrating, bending bamboo unwound. Down it thrummed, roaring toward satisfaction. Performed in slow motion I saw its uncomplicated genesis, its perfection of purpose. Kira’s shinai was late. I was the male jōdan-no-kamae. The male body possessed potential for more strength than its female counterpart did. Enthralled with the newness of my art, I had allowed individuality to violate our kata. My stronger strikes had slowed her reaction time. I had been selfish. I had let too much waza, too much expression intervene. I had betrayed Kira. Her shinai was only now rising to intercept mine.
No padding protected us. If I let go, my shinai would strike her head. All this came to me in a fraction of a second. Even in slow motion, it was too late to halt, so I performed the cardinal sin and leaned forward, using my swinging momentum to carry my shinai past Kira. My wrists and forearms hit her shoulder off-balance but did no harm. Because it was late rising and I had leaned inward, the blunted kensen (the tip) of Kira’s shinai, slammed into the underside of my chin cracking my teeth shut.
Flashing ruby pain exploded in my head, bursting into billions of pinpricks of light. My legs went wobbly. Dojo lights dimmed, narrowing into a dark tunnel, irising shut. I felt sleepy. Steel bands now bound my chest. Warm wind blew on my neck. Something hard but soft pressed all over. Kira. She hugged me tightly, knees locked, leaning back, taking my weight. All floppy and wobbly, I could not lift my chin from her shoulder. Kira’s hair smelled like lavender. Almost gone. I stared at the floor. Almost all dark now.
“Bruce! Hang on to me,” she said, calling me back from the abyss. I tried to comply, but my arms wouldn’t work well. Her father appeared on my right and took an arm over his shoulder. “Sit Bruce on the bench,” I heard her say from afar.
My knees bent and then straightened, bent once more before I managed to lock them and walk stiff-legged. I shook my head. Some of the cobwebs were clearing. Kira shored up one side of me; her father braced the other. It reminded me of a three-legged race.
“I’m okay now,” I said, and rested one hand on her shoulder, the other on her father’s. My legs firmed up and then wobbled. “What was that?”
“Delicate daughter’s shinai. Turn head next time.”
“No, the other thing. The slow-motion stuff. I’m okay now.”
“No argument. Lean on me. Father, bring water, and cold cloth,” she said sharing a look with him. “Need to sit you down, Bruce.”
He walked off to comply. Reaching the bench, Kira helped me to sit. I was feeling close to normal. Tiny pinpoints of circling lights had disappeared, and so had the dizziness. I was ready for answers. My jaw hurt and throbbed. I rubbed it tenderly. It was bruised, but not broken. Kira moved my hand away and turned my face side to side.
“Stop that. I’m fine.”
“Not for you to decide. Hands down.”
“Fine. Answer my question. What was that thing we shared?”
“Oneness of being. Eyes forward. Look here. Follow my hand,” she told me moving three fingers up and down and then side to side. “We share the essence of the fire spirit; a stubbornness. How do you feel? Dizzy? Upset stomach? Heavy limbs?”
“None of the above. Better. The dojo isn’t spinning anymore. That’s the instinct, a fire spirit?”
“No. Fire spirit only enables. Grab my fists and push down while I resist.” I reached out and pushed her fists down. “Once more, this time to the side.”
“See. I’m fine. Please answer unworthy student.”
“For a few moments, you were in harmony, were able to gather and convert qi at will. Our spirits joined until we shared all. Mystics pass through a door where they join with universe and become one. You and I have a connection with earth energy. We bring learning forward from past existence. The fire spirit is too stubborn to forget, but not strong enough to remember.”
“Then I must have misbehaved in past lives to have been given this life.”
“Very serious learning, Bruce. Very few possess this ability. Many train whole lives but never attain. It lets us recognize our past failures and grants us an opportunity to make amends. It is our duty to serve others in this life and to perform deeds on behalf of those who lack our gifts. We owe a debt to sensei and to our ancestors. Only then may we ascend. True Bushido warrior owes a death to ancestors and lives their life in service to others. You now ready to begin kenjutsu, art of the sword. Next level in training and in service.”
Oily black fire flared her eyes with stone-cold certainty. No fanatical crazy passion that allowed monks to self-immolate. No irrational belief, just unshakeable certainty. For a second there she almost had me buying into Bushido magic and Zen voodoo. Unless living a second, third and fourth life was punishment for the mistakes of the first one, I could not bring myself to accept her words. Even as I rejected her perspective, I remembered how it felt to be in harmony. For the first time, I had felt connected to something greater than myself. By looking outside of myself, I had found a higher power within. And then I remembered what it felt like to stand together, though I did not know what that meant, either. Some of my doubts faded.
“Okay. I never heard it put that way. Please, go on.”
“Have you visited a place for the first time and it felt as though you had been there before? Known what you would find around next corner?”
“Sure. That’s déjà vu.”
“You were there before. How else you know? And what about instinctual learning? How can you know something if you’ve never learned it?”
“You can’t. But...but that can’t be. There must be a rational answer.”
“That’s right. It can not be. Not unless you learned it in past existence and brought it forward.”
“Fine. I can’t explain that one, yet. Though I’m still unconvinced.”
“Not trying to convince you, Bruce. Gravity is all around us. No need to convince you for it to be any truer. You’ll have the truth when you’re ready to accept it. Some truths may not be expressed in words. Some spiritual truths are experiential only.”
“I’m ready to experience your true self name.”
“Not for telling,” said Kira as her father arrived. “Up to you to learn. When you train harder and longer, you will know my name and recognize all that I am. Never have I hidden it from you. Never will I. We share knowing. When you’re ready to accept truth, you will allow yourself to find it. Until then, answers you seek in training. Kenjutsu is new level. The ultimate joining of body and spirit and weapon.”
“I saw you, Kira. The real you. You were on fire. We slowed down while the world kept spinning.”
“I saw you, too, Bruce,” she said dipping her head. When I returned her bow, she said solemnly, “Great honour to be present at the birth of true self. Everything you saw, I saw. We same, same. Now I teach you how to hide true self, but to remain mindless. Father is able to read kehai, what you would call aura. We are each blessed with ancient gifts.”
He stood quietly at his daughter’s side listening and nodding sagely.
“You burned cherry fire, flaming open and folding back almost to sleep, and then reopening with power and speed I never thought to witness. You were strength and feminine and peace and lethal, and so much more that I can’t find all the words. When I do, I’ll know your name. I’ll know where this ability originates.”
Kira clapped her hands delightedly.
“Gai-jin learns well. Maybe now you will believe unworthy teacher about past life,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “Now we will have first-rate fun. Kata in true self form better than floor cleaning. First, I humbly request father to instruct you on how to terminate cut. No need for hot padding during kata. Together we walk the Way in true self. You see. Training brings you closer to recognizing ancient self and to fulfilling your debt to ancestors.”
“Just promise me that when it’s time to pick my name you won’t let your father choose it.”
Kira’s wind chime laughter filled the dojo with harmony while her father dolefully shook his head at the unlearned barbarian who had not learned a thing, despite his best efforts to civilize and educate.
“Bruce,” she said patiently, “true name not chosen. Name describes your true self. You already are who you are. Not even most fantastical sensei can alter spiritual truth.”